Why is Climate Action So Hard?

Photo: Evelyn Dom

At the end of March, Professor Philip Kitcher delivered a talk on the difficulties of taking action against climate change as part of the D. Lorne Gales Lecture in the History of Science.

Kitcher described climate change as “the major issue of our days,” but expressed his hope that “by understanding the obstacles, we can begin to overcome them.” Kitcher’s lecture was built around six central questions about climate change. He posed, and then attempted to answer, the questions of whether or not climate change is really happening, if it matters, and why one should care about the future. He also attempted to ask and answer what can be done about climate change, who should pay for it, and which economic and political changes are necessary to combat the issue.

Kitcher outlined a common issue in the fight against climate change: the demand of balancing  the needs of future generations with the needs of people in the present. He described four main duties that humans have: securing a habitable world for the future, helping the poor now, assisting in the implementation of “green” technology in less developed countries, and to be able to do these things all while preserving the major human achievements of the past. Kitcher noted that “it is not obvious how these duties are to be balanced against one another, and that’s what makes fighting against climate change so hard.”

Kitcher emphasized that the fight against climate change certainly requires major societal changes. In order to facilitate and financially support such changes, Kitcher expressed that “the nations that have profited from industrialization really need to step up.” He supports the idea that the developed and industrialized nations that have contributed largely to the current global climate situation should be the ones to bear the financial burden of the response. “What is needed is not simply for [developed nations] to put their own houses in order,” Kitcher said, “but for them to help the rest of the world put their houses in order.”

Kitcher’s conclusion included several explanations for the difficulties of climate action. He lamented that “distrust has been created around expertise, in climate science and across the board.” He sees this distrust as a large obstacle to having the general population understand the global threat of climate change. Kitcher also expressed that the need for large economic and socio-political changes to society is a barrier to fighting climate change. He explained that “the costs of action are really serious and there is no sure-fire plan.”

Despite these obstacles, Kitcher believes that the best plan for taking action is the creation of a strong network of economic and political institutions around the world. He believes in the necessity of a more permanent democratic structure to help facilitate global cooperation. “There are severe obstacles,” Kitcher proclaimed, “but let’s try and forge an alliance within the human species that takes on, collectively, the enemy we have created for ourselves.”


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